Summary: The sage thought he found a spirit charmer. And oh how wrong he was, as Soren found out. Written for 31days at lj, January 27, 2007: The Angels can only get leftovers today.

Spoilers for Ike and Soren's A support, and references to Mordecai and Stefan's A support. If you don't know them, go to Gamefaqs dot com's support conversations FAQ to read them. It doesn't spoil anything for the game.

feathers black and tainted

Soren's first word was "why".

Which he learned from, "Why me? Why do I have to take care of this…this child? Why does the world force such things upon people like me?" Laments and laments from the woman who cared for him – if it could be called caring – night after night, they hammered the word into his head in all of its finery.

"Why me? Goddess, why me?"

She never taught him how to speak, how to understand. Her wails eventually forced it all into his mind, all of the sounds and syllables and sentences.

"Filthy half-breed of a child, why did fate do such a thing…"

Words and their meanings, words and their stinging lashes; all of those taught him language.

When he learned the meaning behind "Why me?" soon after the "Get away from me, child!"s, he grew to wonder – why was she taking care of him if she hated him so, this woman? She wasn't his mother, that much he was sure of, as she pounded on that fact more often than not when she flew into her frenzied rages.

He also learned to notice, to observe. Notes scattered on tables, whispers of a woman's name with the reverence of one mourning for a loved one lost, a paper with two names on it that shared a surname, the latter being the one that he often heard in her whispers.

"Oh, my poor sister…how could you fall in love with…why did you have to disappear…and leave me this…"

Eventually, he figured it out.

Those taught him reasoning. And with it, syntax and context.

"Goddess, why?"

She taught him nothing –

(everything, she taught him everything)

- she taught him nothing that he needed to know at all.

--l--

He learned to count from the days passing him by that turned into years (four, he was four now, that he was sure of), empty bottles stacked against the wall, insults hurled at him in an afternoon. He learned to read through browsing scattered books in the house while the woman was away, learned to write by tracing the letters onto brittle parchment paper.

She taught him complexities, and he learned the necessities on his own. Or perhaps it was the other way around, but he didn't really care to bother with the details.

It wasn't until one day that he realized how small his world was, that day when the door opened and an old man stepped inside, followed closely behind by the woman.

Who looked happy for the first time.

Not simply as cheerful and smiling as she could be in the past by saying nothing to him or giving him an extra portion to eat in ignorance, but exuberant, delirious, smiling like a fall into oblivion, goddess how delirious that smile was.

The old man stood in the doorway, peered at him. Soren opened his mouth to speak, but couldn't form words with his tongue.

"He hasn't spoken for years, hardly even gurgled as a baby," the woman said, gurgling enough on her own. "He'll be a perfect student. Really. Absolutely perfect. Quiet as an angel, and if you're right, such a quick learner."

The stranger said nothing, merely staring at him somewhere around the forehead level. Soren fidgeted, and analyzed the man to avoid any more discomfit. Indeed, the man looked interesting. Robes, long and worn, and a beard to match; tomes tied to the waist, covered in fascinating sigils and symbols and patterns that made his fingers itch to open one of them and oh if only he could ask.

If there was one thing she most definitely taught him, it was to never ask a thing.

(to never say a word)

"You see, sometimes they're not always one of the Branded," the man says. "Sometimes, they might be a Spirit Charmer. Gifted with the ability to learn magic, one of those rare talents in the world. And this boy, he might be one of them."

Gifted? Soren heard, but wasn't sure if he learned that word correctly, because never would something like that apply to him, never at all.

"I'll take custody of him," the sage continued, and the woman's smile only grew and grew as if all the words of joy she knew would tumble out from that black space. "Here – the gold promised."

"Oh, thank you," she replied ecstatically, but the little boy was pretty sure he knew what she was actually thankful about.

Her delirium was sickening. More sickening than when she was inebriated, far more. More sickening than what she must have thought of him as she spat out the words half-breed and disgusting.

More sickening. More sickening.

The sage turned his eyes back to him. "Come, boy. You'll be living with me from now on. I hear you like to read."

He looked up.

"I guarantee you that there will be no shortage of books from now on. Come."

And he did.

Though it wasn't really a choice. Just a result in a transaction.

The woman never looked back, just kept grinning madly and tossing the empty bottles outside. He learned to do the same, eyes straight ahead, feet forward.

He owed her no more than that, if anything at all.

--l--

If nothing else, his new life taught him how pathetic his last one had been.

"You stupid boy, can you not understand this simple spell? The most basic fire spell and you stumble over it like a buffoon."

The boy bit his lip, not replying, and focused harder, focused until the words swam in waves and water burned his eyes.

"Damnit, boy! Do you have the brain of a bird? I didn't bring you here on a lark or out of sympathy. I didn't give you these chances to learn and a roof to live under just because. I did it because you're supposed to learn what I teach, and you're supposed to learn faster than that."

And I'm old and I know my time will come one of these days, soon now, and I need to pass this magic on before it's too late, he didn't say, though Soren knew. It didn't take much to figure that out after the first few weeks he was there. The sage had no children, no family, no friends. He took in a boy like himself, had searched for someone with high capabilities for magic. There was no other reason for him to do that.

He struggled again, pushed out one last try at lighting the candle.

A fizzle, a spark, and a bang of light.

He opened his eyes, looked to the sage.

"Better. Keep at it. When you finally create a flame, it'll be time for lunch."

Soren remembered the amount of time that it took him to create a breeze and the growls of his stomach on that long, long day, and kept on working in silence. Always working. He couldn't remember an afternoon where he did anything but.

If nothing else, this taught him how bad life was with that woman. At least here there was someone who did not recoil at his mere existence, someone who taught instead of just leaving him to figure things out, someone who taught him something remotely interesting that he wanted to learn..

If nothing else, he was a quick learner. He knew what he had to do, knew the things that were left unsaid. Knew what was expected and what lay under the surface of what he was told.

If nothing else, this new life was better.

If nothing else.

(He never learned optimism, but he never learned to complain.)

--l--

Sometimes, the sage's punishments for failure were harsher than that. He probably felt it beneath him to use a switch, but magic wasn't out of the question.

The boy put a hand to his singed face, wincing but making not a single sound.

However, the sage did. "Damnable fool. If you can't use magic with ease like this, what's the use? Being able to read musty tomes and understanding some of the spell-casting language? Do you think that's all I wanted you to do? Useless raven boy."

The tirade continued as Soren tried to call forth lightning, and failed. Three months of training and no spark would come. He wondered how long it had taken the sage to learn it.

He focused on the last insult, used it to drive himself further. Raven boy, indeed. In addition to the red mark on his forehead, he had red eyes and black hair, something that the man said wasn't common in the world at all. But was it an insult? He thought the mark was what signaled the fact that he was a Spirit Charmer, one skilled in the magical arts. Or had he meant the red eyes?

"Focus on the magic, you ungrateful whelp!"

Raven boy, raven boy.

Sometimes, he wondered if something better was out there, though he had nothing to help him imagine what that something would be.

He never learned self-pity, after all.

--l--

It wasn't that the sage was horrible to him all of the time. The weeks that he mastered spell after spell, incantation after incantation, he would be pleased – almost calm, almost nice. Lucid, in a way.

It was just when failure after failure was the only thing to grace his efforts or he happened to be slow with mastering a certain skill that the old man reacted harshly – and according to him, slow was almost everything except breakneck speed.

On one of the really bad days when he couldn't decipher one of the ancient scrolls, his teacher almost used his magic recklessly against him, barely missing with a Bolting tome. He had cursed, yelling, "Are you even a spirit charmer at all? Some of these days, it feels like you're merely a Branded."

Branded. He had no idea what that meant, though the word itself twisted his gut.

It sounded familiar.

"Because, I promise to Ashera, if you truly are one of them, if you can't understand that scroll, I will throw you out back to the half-breeds that you came from," he snarled, and Soren returned to the text, filing away the word in the back of his mind.

you're merely a Branded.

(you're merely a Branded.)

It haunted him in his sleep in the form of nightmares, and it haunted him when he was awake through the sage and his words as he fumbled with the elements.

There was no respite, ever.

--l--

(you're merely a Branded, you're merely a Branded, branded branded Branded you're merely a Branded)

--l--

When the sage died two years after he had come to study under him, Soren had amassed several things: a great deal of magical ability and knowledge, the capability of going for days without eating, patent concentration skills, and no compassion for the man's death.

It wasn't that he was a bad man – he could have been worse. He had been worse, sometimes. The boy just didn't feel anything after his death, felt no closeness, no grief.

Besides, there were other things to worry about.

The primary concern was food. He never went out into town much because of his studies, and even when he did it was the sage that took care of all business-related matters. But luck was with him – he had just gone to the market, so there was enough left to last several days, especially if he ate sparingly.

He could do that.

The question, though, was what would he do afterwards? Because if anything, they hadn't taught him how to live. Or die, for that matter, though he wasn't interested in that option at all.

He hadn't spent the last six years of his life suffering for that.

--l--

One week later – or maybe more, he hadn't really paid attention – he had eaten all of the food in the hovel and was left with nothing other than his tomes, the clothes on his back, and a small sack of gold that he found, which he would have to guard industriously, he somehow knew.

He readied himself to leave, once and for all, and to head for the village nearby. It would be hard, he knew. People would see a child like him and not care, if the woman had taught him anything. At the most, a thief would mark him as easy prey; at the worst, a crowd would turn its back on him and walk away.

He was prepared for that.

What he wasn't prepared for was seeing the first woman with a kindly smile – "What's a child like you walking out here alone for, hmm?" – and opening his mouth to respond, and then –

Nothing.

Nothing.

"Child? Oh, you poor thing. Are you mute, too? Did you just lose your parents? Do you have anywhere to go?"

He put a hand to his throat. How stupid of him. How did he not think of it, the fact that he hadn't spoke a single word his entire life, that he didn't even know the sound of his own voice.

Ridiculously stupid.

He tried, anyway, to push a sound out. Anything, anything would do.

"Madeline, what are you doing?" a man asked, walking up to them and staring.

"What?"

"That child. Don't you see? That mark – he's a Branded."

The woman's eyes widened, as if she saw him for the first time. "I don't believe it."

"Have nothing to do with him. He'll bring a hundred years of strife, you know that." And with that, he led the woman back inside the house they stood in front of, firmly shutting the door.

He was alone.

(branded, you're a Branded)

He hated the word, hated being haunted by something that he didn't know. For all of his spells and vocabulary and knowledge, it eluded him like lunch during one of the bad times. Branded. Branded, Branded, Branded, did he even want to know? He thought he was a Spirit Charmer. He thought he was a raven boy. He didn't know, didn't know, didn't know at all.

He stared at the dusty road, the shuttered windows, the closed doors.

(branded, you're a Branded)

If Ashera was benevolent as she was supposed to be…

Goddess, he was all alone.

--l--

For several days, he'd go to the village, succeed in accomplishing nothing, refuse to look at the passerby during lunchtime, and sleep on the outskirts of the village, away from everyone else. Everywhere he went, he was rejected or feared that he would be, and he didn't dare enter the markets with its masses of people and potential mobs.

Several days, and he was hungry. Several weeks, and he was starving. Even his time with the sage had never gotten to this level of urgency.

It couldn't be helped. He would have to try something.

The edge of the market would be fine, he thought. Just the edge. Less people, less crowds. He could get in, get food, and get out. Worry about the rest later, just the immediate concerns for now. All he had to do. Just that.

The villagers took no notice of him any more, whether they closed their eyes or looked the other way, and so he wasn't hindered as he headed towards the marketplace. He made sure to stay moving and out of everyone's way, preferably out of sight, and scouted out a produce stall.

The man there looked nonchalant. "Whaddya want, boy?"

He still couldn't speak; he tried on his own the past few days, but to no avail, hunger or no. So instead, he pointed at the fruit in the baskets and barrels.

The man blinked, then shifted. "All right. So you want some of those, eh. Give you 4 for 20 gold. How about that?"

He paused, knowing how much was in the bag of gold. At that rate, he wouldn't last long. Perhaps he'd have to try another stall –

"Well, boy? Hurry up, the passerby are starin'. Scare away my customers, will you?"

What a lie. Everyone was busy with their own business. None of them would take the time to watch such a scene.

He opened his mouth again, uselessly. Cursed himself, wished all of the teachings he knew could do something in this situation, cursed himself like the woman and the sage had taught him to.

"Hey." A new voice – a kid? "Just now, dad, didn't we buy food from him? Wasn't it cheaper then?"

At that, a few heads turned.

"Huh, you're right. We bought our produce from you at 10 for 20." The child's father turned to the stall owner. What kind of a deal are you rigging for this kid?"

Soren looked up, surprised.

The vendor looked flustered. "Well, look, you bought the whole lot from me at wholesale, a lot for a large party and all, and so – "

"Stop lying. You're trembling already. Trying to take advantage of a poor child?"

"I – "

"If I were you, I'd sell the boy everything at the same 'wholesale' price you sold to me. It seems like a great idea, wouldn't you say?"

"I…" He wilted under the man's stare. "Okay, okay! Tell him to pick what he wants an' get out of here," he trailed off, muttering and looking the other way.

Soren took a good look at the newcomers. A young boy, bright blue hair and eyes to match with a wooden training sword held in hand. An older man, strong, plain clothes and cape, with a heavy battleaxe so large that he was surprised it was allowed in the market. He looked up at him, questioningly.

The man glanced back at him for one second, and then proceeded to choose from the line of apples and oranges for him before handing some gold to the muttering vendor.

Wait, no, he thought, reaching for his gold pouch.

"It's all right. You seem to be starving. It's on me, kid, how about that?" the man smiled.

"It's a waste to feed one like him," the vendor said with one last parting shot before he ducked away.

Soren paled.

The man said nothing, unflinching. "Here. Let's get out of the market and get some open air." He paused, as if asking why are you here alone and why are the villagers shunning you and yet not asking as though he already knew all at once with his eyes. It unnerved the boy, yet gave him a strange peace of mind.

The man was honest. The man had some compassion.

He decided to trust him, and put a hand to his own throat, saying nothing.

The man stared back at him. And seemed to understand.

"Hey, why don't you come with us?" the boy chimed in, completely oblivious to what was going on. "We're having lunch soon, and you can join us. Is that okay, dad? Can he come?"

He laughed. "Sure, why not."

Soren couldn't understand why he felt like he could trust them so easily, but nodded anyway, keeping his usual doubts at bay.

--l--

The boy's name was Ike.

His father's name was Greil, and after Soren had written out bits and pieces of his story, just the important parts – Ike was amazed that he could write far better than most of the people he knew, though he could hardly read any of it – he nodded and asked if he'd like to stay since he had nowhere else to go.

Who was he to refuse? Who was he to have a choice?

Soren thought about it for a moment.

He couldn't speak.

He couldn't eat.

But maybe now, he could.

No choice in the matter after all.

--l--

Greil never told anyone else about the whole affair, not even to his son and daughter, as though it was Soren's tale to tell and only his.

Despite his predictions, everyone had accepted him anyway, and it was like learning how to live all over again. Learning how to speak, how to communicate, how to be, only better this time around.

(for a while)

Later on, he realizes, Greil had probably known the truth.

(Ike had not.)

--l--

Again, he knew: everything would only last for a while.

It was just that he forgot to keep track of the time.

--l--

He noticed something was wrong when he reached his teens. The others younger than him in the company had either grown somewhat or started their growth spurts, but to all the world he still appeared no older than a young boy. As though he stopped aging years ago.

The words branded and half-breed echoed in his mind for reasons he couldn't explain, inexorably linked and inexorably repulsive, and studying his magic while the others trained made him feel as though he was back in the sage's hovel all over again.

"You're probably just one of those late growers," Ike and Boyd commented, shrugging it off.

He nodded, though something twisted inside of him.

(branded, you're branded)

(branded, you're a Branded)

--l--

There were jobs, there was war. There was a princess, there was an escape.

And throughout it all, time simply had to creep back up on him. Slowly and surely, but it did all the same.

Though, he should've known that time would wait for no one or nothing. Or no truth.

--l--

It wasn't until Begnion that he got the one answer in his life that he was looking for.

(the beginning of the end)

Amidst the heavy books in the Mainal Cathedral, if the irony was to be complete.

The Branded. A cross between beorc and laguz; a violation of the Goddess's laws and teachings. Proof of heritage usually manifests in a unique scar or mark, found anywhere on the body. The brand may disappear in a lineage for generations and then reappear almost as suddenly. Also sometimes confused with a Spirit Charmer as both bear the same type of mark. Branded age slower than beorc but faster than laguz, which sets them apart.

Also known as the Parentless, ones destined to bring into existence a century of discord and destruction.

Half-breed, Branded, Parentless. Filthy, discord, taboo.

There was no doubt in his mind now. The Goddess was a benevolent being, indeed.

Filthy. Discord. Taboo.

Destruction.

He thought back, back to the woman's delirious smile and the sage's appraising glance. The woman thought he was as horrid as a half-breed. The man thought he had found a Spirit Charmer.

"You useless raven boy! Sometimes I wonder if you have any magical ability after all!"

If anything, his life had taught him that pain was something for him to bear, something to face unflinchingly. But the possible truth in that statement tore at him like talons through his throat and stole away his breath, his words, his composure.

The man thought he had found a Spirit Charmer.

(branded, you're branded)

(branded, you're a Branded)

The man thought he had found a Spirit Charmer.

Oh, how wrong he was.

--l--


It didn't come out the way I had planned at all. It was supposed to be short, 800-ish words, and then it grows into this monstrosity that completely overshadows the one point I had wanted to make and thus jolts the ending. Oh well. And something about it's nagging me. Actually, I'm being pretty dodgy from the part where Soren meets Greil and onwards, mostly because there's some timeline conflict in my head and I have no idea when the mercenary group formed, so…better not to even try, haha.

As for the theme? Interpret it whichever way you wish. Thanks to 31days, I completely stopped my Zihark project (which is also turning into a monstrosity) and pumped this out instead. Damn addictive themes.

Many thanks to Rae for the abrupt beta job and to everyone I pestered for help with phrasing. Comments and reviews are awesome, too.